“The Tiger Hunter” star Danny Pudi on his childhood and first romantic lead role

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Even as a kid, Danny Pudi was a performer. At the age of 5, he was acting in plays and dancing in a folk dance group. The middle child of a Polish immigrant mother and an Indian immigrant father, he grew up with his mother’s side of the family in Chicago. “Inside my home I’m very Polish. As soon as I left the door, in school and in public, I was pretty much perceived as Indian,” he says.

But it wasn’t until college, when Pudi took up musical theater, that he began to think of performing seriously with the encouragement of a theater director who told Pudi that she could picture him on a sitcom. At Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, Pudi won a scholarship named in honor of Chris Farley. He moved back to Chicago after college and enrolled in classes at Second City, where Farley had gotten his start.

After moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting and appearing on a few episodes of a few shows, Pudi landed the role of Abed Nadir on NBC’s Community, fulfilling his theater instructor’s vision of him on a sitcom. Today, he plays Teddy on the new NBC show Powerless, another television series with an ensemble cast. Set in the DC Comics universe, it’s about employees at the research and development wing of Wayne Securities (as in Bruce Wayne) who work on products that help ordinary people feel more secure in a world full of superheroes and supervillains.

Pudi recently attended CAAMFest, where he starred in the opening night film, The Tiger Hunter (dir. Lena Khan), as Sami Malik, an Indian immigrant chasing the American dream in 1970s Chicago. The Tiger Hunter was just acquired for distribution by Shout! Factory. We caught up with Pudi over the phone.

—Melissa Hung

Tell me about your upbringing and what it was like being this brown kid in a Polish family in Chicago.

[laughs] That’s pretty much it. I laugh when I hear that description so I can only imagine what people thought of me back in the ’80s in Chicago. I always felt a little strange. I always felt a little odd. We lived in an amazing neighborhood though and our family was super tight. So I always felt safe, which was wonderful. I knew our situation was different, but we were always encouraged to embrace that. And my mom especially decided it wasn’t enough to stick out. So she made me take Polish dance and take violin lessons and all this other stuff so that way I would stick out even more than I already did. Which can be challenging growing up, you know … you’re just trying to blend in. It’s pretty difficult when you grow up speaking Polish, but you and half of your family is from Andhra Pradesh. But it was wonderful. It was very colorful. We were the first family to come to America in many ways and so our house was sort of the landing pad. We always had relatives coming in. We were driving out to O’Hare frequently picking up aunties and uncles who were sometimes our aunties and uncles and sometimes not really our aunties and uncles. We were very lucky.

You’re known for playing the character Abed on Community. What was it like to work on that show and prepare for your character, who has crazy pop culture knowledge? I’m missing chunks of pop culture knowledge and I attribute that to being from an immigrant family where we didn’t watch much TV or movies.

I can relate to that. People ask me sometimes how much or how similar I am to Abed. There are aspects that are similar. I was a huge sports fan when I was a kid. … Specifically I grew up during the Bulls run in Chicago and seeing Michael Jordan. He was one of my first, earliest heroes. And I loved collecting baseball cards, for example, and memorizing baseball statistics. I used to always love music as well. So I think music and sports were my two things that I would really get into. I would dive into records and memorize song lyrics. And early on, it was mostly hip-hop records. I’d memorize Wu Tang lyrics. … But in terms of Abed’s pop culture, yeah, I didn’t have that. We really didn’t watch a ton of television growing up in my household. So there were things I couldn’t really relate to. At the same time, I did have this background of really getting into sports and music and obsessing over the details of things. And I did watch a lot of Monty Python. I did watch a lot of SNL. So there were certain things I loved memorizing, watching over and over again. That’s kind of it. Other than that, Abed and I are pretty different so it required a lot of research on my part. With every script, I would pick it up right away and I couldn’t wait to read it because it was so funny and exciting and different. And also because I knew there was a high chance I needed to figure out a Nicolas Cage impression that week. Or I needed to watch My Dinner with Andre. Or brush up on my Farscape. And so all those things I didn’t have prior to Community. And I remember at one point in time, one of the writers texted me, “How’s your Boston accent?” Another time they texted, “Do you have a Seinfeld impression?” I didn’t. I didn’t really have these things because I didn’t really watch those show as much as a lot of other people might have. In my house, we were listening to Polish radio. I definitely needed to work on it. It wasn’t something that just came easy to me. It was something I loved, but I definitely had to keep working at it. In many ways, Community was really fun for me too because it was like school. It was like a lesson in pop culture every week.

Danny Pudi at CAAMFest 2017 for "The Tiger Hunter." Photo by Willy Chen for CAAM.

Danny Pudi at CAAMFest 2017 for “The Tiger Hunter.” Photo by Willy Chen for CAAM.

You’ve talked about not seeing anybody like you who’s multiracial or Asian American acting or going down an artistic career path. Do you think being able to see that would have made a difference to you?

That’s a good question. Would it make a difference to see people similar to my background growing up, like in television or performance or music? I think in some ways, it would have made a difference. I don’t know how. … I think in my case, it gave me a lot of motivation to pursue this and pursue specifically my own voice. I think the challenge for me is: “I have to figure out who I am.” That’s something I’m still always kind of thinking about. Who am I? What are the things I’m interested in? What are the things, the questions I have about myself and my background and my family? Those things are always with me, which are fun for me to explore. … It gave me a lot to work with as a writer-performer-actor growing up. I only needed to think about Sunday night dinner at my household to think of funny, strange things. Things came up pretty naturally [like] my very vivid memories of my high school graduation and seeing one side of the table with Indian family and the other side all Polish family. … It’s two worlds that I was straddling  very different, amazing worlds. So I think not having a lot of examples gave me more reason to figure out who I am, and gave me more motivation to figure out who I am as a performer, which is a great driving force.

How did you get involved with The Tiger Hunter?

Probably about a year-and-a-half ago, I got a script through agents from The Tiger Hunter asking if I was interested in meeting with Lena [Khan, writer and director] and Megha [Kadakia, producer]. I read the script and I needed to meet with them. Not only do I want to, I need to meet and express how excited I am about this story and this role, and also how much I connected to it personally. The Tiger Hunter is about an Indian immigrant who comes from India to Chicago in the 1970s. On the outside, that’s my dad. My dad emigrated from India to Chicago in the 1970s. He wasn’t an engineer so there’s some difference there. But so did my mom. She emigrated from Poland to Chicago in the 1970s. The story itself  it’s brought up so many stories, memories, and themes that I wanted to explore but also that were very familiar to me. … I liked that it was an immigrant story, but it’s more than that. It’s about the idea of success. It was really about teamwork and surrounding yourself with people and the importance of the journey, not just the end result, and all these things. At the same time, I ride a Vespa. Sami rides a Vespa in the film. And my dad has a lot of similarity to this character. So I begged Lena for the role because I needed to be part of this story. And from an acting perspective, coming off of Community and from a lot of my other work, I hadn’t done anything like this. This was new from an acting perspective. It’s a role that has some comedy, but also has real grounded moments. And it was my first lead in a film. So that to me felt like steps that I wanted to take, and that I was really excited about as an artist. There’s a lot that made sense to me. And I’m so happy it worked out. I truly had such a great time and learned a lot.

It got a very warm reception here in San Francisco at CAAMFest.

It was wonderful. Man, that was so fun.

What was your experience of attending CAAMFest?

It was incredible because my mom and my sister at the time were living in San Francisco. And they moved the next day on March 10th, so that was their last night in San Francisco. So they came to see the film and it was the first time they saw the film. Early on when I researching the role and working on the film, I had a bunch of conversations with my mom, specifically about her memories during that time period, and what it was like, for instance, for her to come to America, not speaking English, what it was like for her to say goodbye to her family. And I wanted to talk about that with her. The story sparked up these conversations again and these memories. And it was so wonderful to be able to share that with her, this film. So it was special. It was special because it was a film and a role for me that was challenging and exciting. But at the same time, it was story that had a lot of significance for my entire family. We just screened in Chicago last week and a lot of my extended family got to go see it there.

Oh yes, at FAAIM’s Asian American Showcase.

It’s a personal story too in many ways, even though I feel like it’s a very universal film. For me, personally, I feel like there’s also something really exciting about sharing it with my family. Because I feel like it’s sort of a present that I owe my family for all their hard work and all the sacrifices that they had made for me to be able to do this. It just feels like one small thing I can do for all the sacrifices my mom made so I could take acting classes and speed reading classes and violin classes.

Did you really take a speed reading class?

I did. I did. I think, probably, like most immigrants, you take all kinds of lessons. Mine included dance lessons, piano lessons, violin lessons, and speed reading. [laughs] I always loved reading so maybe there was something there.

I did too. But I didn’t know about speed reading classes.

That’s how I was lucky, I guess  that my mom was always encouraging me to try stuff. My family did. They also knew too that I probably wasn’t going to be a doctor, so let’s keep pushing this arts thing.

What did your mom think about the film and did she come to the opening night party?

She didn’t come to party because they had to move. They went home, my sister and my mom, to pack. But they both loved the film. My mom said it sparked so many memories for her. … It was so full, so personal to our family’s journey, and especially because it was Chicago. It’s not just the bellbottoms. But there were all these other things about working your way up the corporate ladder. My mom also had to do that. Working up the corporate ladder as an immigrant. And living in cramped quarters. Like I was saying, we constantly had lots of family in our home. She really loved it. And I think there’s just a lot of fun and heart in this story too. Which is really cool. It’s a fun story. As much as it touches on things that can be pretty serious, I think it does it in such a playful, fun way, like a really good memory. My mom really enjoyed it. She really came away happy with it.

It’s always good to make mom happy.

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This interview is made possible by Comcast and has been edited for length and clarity.

Melissa Hung is a writer and independent journalist in San Francisco, and a contributing writer to the Center for Asian American Media, a nonprofit dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible.